Teaching What’s Wrong

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On a bright November morning, visitors file into Judge Leland DeGrasse's courtroom in New York State Supreme Court to hear lawyers take on New York State's education funding system. It's a reliable crowd: witnesses waiting to be called, a smattering of local press, and a group of public high school students quietly scooting into the last row of benches. All are there to catch the blockbuster case, Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York, that aims to get New York City its fair share of state education money.

Puffy jackets and surreptitious games of tic-tac-toe may seem out of place in court. But like the hundreds of kids who've visited before them, these juniors and seniors from Barbara Rozales' Law Journalism class at Franklin K. Lane High School have a vested interest in how this case turns out.

Like many high school programs city wide, Rozales' popular seminar lacks some basic amenities. Her class doesn't have access to even a single computer. The students give their teacher handwritten or typed articles, and she retypes them on her own home PC.

“My children graduated from schools in Nassau County, and I saw a difference, in the physical layout, in the equipment,” Rozales says. “My children were using computers from kindergarten up.”

For one week in November, her students looked at why they don't have the amenities many schools outside the city have. As part of outreach efforts in connection with its lawsuit, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity has developed a new curriculum being used citywide that's brought more than two dozen classes to visit the court since the trial began in October. The curriculum is designed to help students understand how the Board of Education's funding crisis affects their lives, and learn how the legal system can be used to turn around seemingly unfixable problems.

The case is worth looking at, says senior Melanie Rivera, “because it's affecting us.” She and her classmates rattle off a list of inadequacies in their school on the Brooklyn-Queens border–from peeling-walls to floors riddled with dangerous nails. But they also are quick to point out that it can be hard to get perspective on their situation, since the conditions under which they've been studying are the only conditions they know. The lawsuit has served in large part to illuminate what they've been missing.

“We haven't been to other schools to compare,' Rivera explains during a break in the morning's proceedings. Leroy Frasier remembers that he once got a glimpse at a suburban school. “I did take a trip upstate in 1995,” he says. He admired the school's separate fields for each of its sports teams, and its brightly muraled walls. “It was a really nice place.”

The Campaign's suit, finally going to trial after six years in the courts, accuses the state of illegally shortchanging New York City's public school children out of hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding every year. New York City enrolls 38 percent of the state's public school children but receives only 35.5 percent of the state's education funding. It's a fundamentally unjust disparity, the suit alleges, that has deprived the city's kids of qualified teachers, sufficient classroom space, modern textbooks and other basic necessities for an education. Attorneys also charge that, because 84 percent of New York City's public school students are minorities, and because the city's schools are home to 74 percent of the state's minority students, the funding structure is in violation of federal civil rights law.

For three years, the Campaign has sponsored public meetings for parents, students, teachers and community members to discuss education reform. CFE approached Ann Dworkis, a veteran city teacher and school activist, to draft a curriculum to make sure students remained involved. CFE staffers pride themselves on the Campaign's commitment to making education reform truly community-based. Including and ultimately inspiring teenagers is very much at the heart of that strategy.

The curriculum is spread over five lessons. First, students learn about the idea of a “sound basic education,' which under the state Constitution must be made available to all New York's children. The curriculum then looks at the complicated formulas the state uses to determine education funding. That's followed by a lesson in citizen advocacy, a trip to court and then another advocacy session. The idea, Dworkis says, is to give students a personal investment in humdrum civics topics like separation of powers and the legislative and judicial processes. “I wanted the students to be aware of how money is spent in the state,' she says. “It's a real issue for them.”

“I want to create students that are actively participating in their government,” Dworkis explains. “I want them to know that indifference does nothing.”

On the day the Franklin K. Lane students visit, the court is bogged down in a long argument over a procedural matter. Interest soon wanes, and some students pass notes, check makeup and whisper. This is a class that's also been to a homicide trial, and it's soon clear how the two cases stack up.

The students come alive, though, for the debriefing that follows every court visit. Attorney Robert Hughes, one of a handful of lawyers working on the trial for CFE, gathers the class for an energetic hallway session. “Did anybody find it boring?” he first asks, and almost everyone's hands go up in relief. “Welcome to the real world of civil litigation,” Hughes laughs. The kids laugh too, and a swift participatory lesson is underway.

Hughes likes the curriculum for more than its effect on the students. “It's very easy to become cynical” as an attorney, he confides after they have left. “It's important for us to see our clients every day. I love having these kids here,” His affection for the students is evident in his parting words to the class. “It's a great honor to represent you,” Hughes concludes. “I want you to remember that you are ultimately the person who writes the real story about you. Tell your story.”

Over the next two days, the class tries to do that. Rozales leads them in a discussion about advocacy and different human rights efforts in the U.S. They then divide into small groups, assigned with planning a strategy to make their voices heard.

“Our schools are always in the papers for doing bad things,” says Nirmala Kandhai, a senior who wants to be a journalist. “Nobody looks at us for being kids that care.” Her group has decided to alert the press to the school's lack of access for the disabled. Bilal Ishaq, a junior, explains the appeal of the grassroots activism. “It makes you feel better,” he says, “knowing that you made a difference.”

Arlene Gonzalez, who watched the trial with her planned career as a lawyer in mind, has urged her peers to come up with “something that's really big?' They decide to write a letter to a local TV station, pushing it to do a story about conditions in the city's schools and students' support for the lawsuit.

Gonzalez, Melanie Rivera and Rebecca Coram debate the merits of which station to approach. Is Fox 5 better? Do more people watch Channel 7? Rivera remarks that on the previous night the school had the dubious distinction of showing up on every channel: A popular security guard had suffered a fatal heart attack while trying to break up a fight. “We could write the same letter to all,” she suggests, and so it's decided.

The three sit for a moment with that thought. They've got their method–now what? Then Coram remembers that in a few minutes she'll be facing a pile of plaster chunks. “Every day in my next period class the ceiling is on my desk,” she complains. “And the bathrooms…,” Rivera chimes in, and they're off. The list gets longer–the school isn't air-conditioned, they're using out-of-date textbooks and old computers, if any. No one has lockers, so students carry their coats and books from class to class.

Nothing on the list seems either sound or basic. The evidence is ample and the girls are on a brainstorming roll. But soon the bell rings, ending the period before they can draft their letter. The political strategizing will have to wait until first period tomorrow.

Joanna Cagan is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.

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